Monday, December 19, 2011

Book Review: The Temeraire Series

I didn't always love to read. There was a time when books were like Kryptonite to pre-high school Chris. Thankfully I matured (somewhat) and reading has become one of my favorite things to do. There is nothing like a good novel. But with an ever increasing stack of comics on my nightstand and a DVR that never seems to be empty, it has been difficult finding the time to crack one open. Nonetheless, I am always on the lookout for a good read.

His Majesty's Dragon
(Temeraire, Book 1)
A few months ago I came across a blog post by Jerry Holkins over at Penny Arcade where he mentioned a book he finished and really enjoyed called His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik. Let's just say he had me at dragon and I immediately jumped over to the author's website to find out more. I learned that this was the first in a series of books about to see the release of its seventh installment. Dubbed the Temeraire series, based on the name of the book's main character, the novels are a mixture of fantasy and alternate history.

The events take place during the Napoleonic War and are written from the perspective of the British. Although the books deal with real events, and many of the characters are historical figures, there is one slight alteration. In Novik's universe, in addition to having ground troops and naval forces, both the French and the British have an air force comprised of dragons manned by a crew of aviators. Essentially each dragon wears an elaborate harness that holds a crew and supplies. There is a captain, a first lieutenant, a medical officer and then soldiers manning guns and bombs. The dragons can speak and are often times extremely intelligent, although their intelligence varies depending on how seriously their aviators take their education. It's one of those ideas that is so perfect I was amazed that no one thought of it sooner, but I'm glad someone did because the books are amazing.

Throne of Jade
(Temeraire, Book 2)
When the series begins, we are introduced to Captain William Laurence of the British Royal Navy. He has just defeated a French war ship carrying precious cargo - a dragon egg en route to Napoleon. While ferrying the egg back to England, it hatches and the crew learns that the dragon within is one of the rarest breeds in the world, a Chinese Imperial. (It's important to note that dragons exist all over the world, and you are introduced to breeds from other countries, but the book focuses mainly on the French and British engaged in the War.) The newly hatched dragon immediately bonds with Laurence, and the captain names him Temeraire after a famous British ship. Laurence and Temeraire forge a deep friendship and admiration for one another that only grows as the series develops.

Black Powder War
(Temeraire, Book 3)
The hatching of Temeraire alters Laurence's life considerably. Once Temeraire was born, and the dragon submitted to be harnessed, he would answer only to Laurence, and the captain soon realized that he would be forced to leave the Royal Navy and join up with the far less respected Aerial Corps. I know what you are thinking. How could it be less respected!? Who wouldn't want to fly a dragon?! I don't want to live in a world where dragons aren't respected! But here's the thing, when a dragon hatches from its egg, one of two things happens. It could bond instantly with a human who the dragon will allow to "harness" it and that person will be responsible for the dragon for the remainder of their lives. This is the best case scenario. In the second possibility, the dragon refuses to be harnessed and goes feral, living in seclusion with other similarly situated dragons. Because dragons rely on their aviators for care, and will only respond to their commands, neither can be separated from the other for prolonged periods of time. This requires that the two live in large plots of land far away from nearby towns. The isolation makes it next to impossible for an aviator to have a family or live what most would consider to be a normal life. The responsibility of caring for a dragon, coupled with the profound affect they have on an aviator's lifestyle, makes membership in the Corps an undesired occupation.

Empire of Ivory
(Temeraire, Book 4)
In the first novel we follow Laurence and Temeraire as they enter the Corps and train alongside their fellow aviators. We are also introduced to the various dragon breeds and learn how each differs in size, appearance, and offensive capabilities. For example, not every dragon breathes fire.  In some cases a dragon may spit acid while in others a dragon may not have any special abilities at all. Smaller dragons tend to be faster, and, if they lack the ability to breathe fire or spit acid, are used as couriers, picking up and delivering military dispatches and personal mail. We find out that dragons learn to speak while still in the egg, picking up on the language they hear while still developing. There are several other reveals but I don't want to spoil them all. Just think of the first book as an introduction to this particular world of dragons and you get a taste of Laurence and Temeraire's first foray into the War. In subsequent books we see them face off against French forces, engage in tense diplomatic negotiations with the Chinese over Temeraire's being harnessed for battle,  we read about them traveling the globe on various missions and meeting dragons from other countries, and we follow them as they track down a cure for a plague decimating the dragon population in Britain. So although the war with Napoleon is always present, at least in the background, the book does not focus on that exclusively. Novik puts her characters in enough unique situations to keep the books fresh and appealing to a larger readership than just history buffs.

Victory of Eagles
(Temeraire, Book 5)
There are two elements of this series that I really enjoyed. First, you can tell that Novik took her time when creating this alternate world. Whether it was classifying the dragon breeds and designing their overall look, or giving each dragon their own unique personalities and voice. In addition, since these dragons are sapient, Novik has added an intriguing subplot concerning dragon rights and equality. In her books, dragons are treated differently depending on the country. The Chinese, for example, treat them no differently than regular citizens. They walk freely on the streets, receive compensation for their work, and own property. The English, however, offer no such luxuries. Her attention to detail makes it very easy to picture this world in your mind and that helps bring the books to life. Second, throughout the series the relationship between Laurence and Temeraire grows and you see how much they care for each other. They are both willing to give their lives for each other. Temeraire isn't just a dragon, or a comrade-in-arms. He is a friend. He is family. The relationship between the two is what puts the book over the top for me. I root for them. I care about them. Although most of his countrymen, including his own parents, look down on his new profession, Laurence could not me more proud to serve in the Corps at Temeraire's side. Their friendship is very powerful and it drives the series.

Tongues of Serpents:
A Novel of Temeraire
For those of you who may not care for novels, or don't have the time to sit and read one (much less seven), but love the concept of this book, I have some good news for you. Back in 2006, Peter Jackson, director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, stated in an interview that he was interested in adapting the Temeraire novels for the big screen. However, in a 2009 interview with IGN, Jackson seemed to scale things back a bit and contemplated making it into a mini-series as opposed to a big budget epic. So who knows. But at least the series has been optioned and talents like Peter Jackson are looking in to it.

If you haven't already figured it out, I can't recommend this series enough. It will appeal to history and fantasy buffs alike. The books are full of suspense, action, social awareness, betrayal and most of all DRAGONS! Need I say more?



Tressina Bowling said...

Great review Chris! I'm always up for a good series to get into...especially when dragons are involved. I don't have nearly the amount of free time I would like to read. Hopefully after the Holiday rush I can check it out!

Christopher John (@Christopher2814) said...

Thanks Tressa. I picked it up on a whim about four months ago and I'm already on the fourth book. I can't wait to get caught up.

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